Five Finnish Cameleers

February 29, 2016
  • Five Finnish seaman enlisted in the AIF in mid-February 1916 in Casula near Sydney. They were Alfred Axel Syrjalainen from Vyborg, Juho Werner Jokinen from Lahti, Aksel Anselm Mattila from Borga (Porvoo), and two men from Rauma, Frans Wilhelm Salminen and Wilhelm Konsten. The last two arrived in Australia on the Finnish ship Imperator Alexander II in February 1914 with a score of other Finnish seamen; Jokinen, Mattila and Syrjalainen landed in Australia between 1910 and 1912. They must all have worked on the vessels trading on the coast. By the time of enlistment they lived in a few seamen’s hostels in Pyrmont and, obviously, decided to join together. Syrjalainen paved the way, enlisting on 9 February, all the rest followed him five days later.
  • They were allocated to the reinforcements to the Camel Corps, which were forming in Egypt; all but Jokinen sailed for Egypt per the Morea in May 1916. Jokinen was kept behind for further training and left Australia with reinforcements in December 1916. They started service as Cameleers, but later they were transferred to Light Horse regiments and served in Egypt and Palestine. Wilhelm Konsten was killed during a patrol in North Gaza in April 1917. All the rest took part in the famous Beersheba charge in November 1917 and served to the end of war. Syrjalainen and Salminen were the last to return to Australia together in July 1919.
  • After the war, life took them along different paths. Syrjalainen continued his mateship with Salminen; in 1920 the Repatriation Department gave them equipment to go rabbiting. They camped near Molong, where Syrjalainen, as a result of a fight in a bar with another returned soldier, killed two men. Newspaper reported that, when arrested, Syrjalainen was saying ‘in his broken English, “I spent four years killing men, now I take no more notice of killing a man than killing a fly”’. He was convicted for manslaughter. When released, he married an Australian woman, Dorris Thrift, and worked as a labourer in Yenda near Griffith. Later he moved to Sydney. His son served in the AIF in WWII.
  • Salminen after the tragedy in Molong disappears from the records; he probably left Australia.
  • Aksel Anselm Mattila married an Australian girl, Gertrude Cecilia Schwarze, and lived with his family in Sydney working as a crane driver.
  • Juho Werner Jokinen married an Australian girl, Nora Kathleen Baxter, and lived in Sydney working as a seaman and later as a wharf labourer.